By Rebecca Markert
Senior Staff Attorney
Freedom From Religion Foundation
This week the Pew Research Center released a troubling report on politics in churches. The report Many Americans Hear Politics From the Pulpit, reveals that of the 40% of Americans attending religious services, about two-thirds of them (64%) heard about politics during worship services. When they say “politics” they mean hearing about political issues such as abortion and immigration, but also endorsements or rejections of certain political candidates. Churches, like all 501(c)(3)s, are able to discuss political issues, so long as they do so in a nonpartisan way. What’s concerning is the number of churches publicly endorsing or opposing political candidates. According to the report, “14 percent of those who attended religious services in the spring and early summer – say their clergy have spoken out in support of, or in opposition to, one of the presidential candidates during this campaign season.”
That may seem like a small percentage, and like good news, but with the general election a little under three months away and the presidential race set, the Freedom From Religion Foundation expects those numbers to rise. Traditionally, complaints about churches engaging in illegal campaign intervention roll into our offices in September and October right before the election and around the so-called “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” a project of the Alliance Defending Freedom which encourages pastors to endorse candidates from the pulpit. Presidential election years also always produce more complaints than midterms. Interestingly, our complainants are usually church-goers who are opposed to their pastors telling them how to vote. They contact our office because they support separation of state and church and see this as an egregious violation.
Given Pew’s recent report, and continuing confusion from our supporters as to why FFRF can’t endorse a candidate but churches can, it’s worth revisiting what are permissible campaign activities for churches to engage in and what are not.
Like all nonprofits organized under 501(c)(3) of the tax code, such as FFRF, churches must abide by strict guidelines that prohibit partisan election activity. The code states in relevant part that 501(c)(3) organizations cannot “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” While leaders of churches or religious organizations may express their opinions on political matters as individuals, they are precluded from making “partisan comments in official organization publications or at official functions of the organization.” In short, churches cannot engage in any of the following activities under the federal tax law
- Endorse or oppose candidates for public office
- Make any communication—either from the pulpit, in a newsletter, or church bulletin—which expressly advocates for the election or defeat of a candidate for public office
- Make expenditures on behalf of a candidate for public office or allow any of their resources to be used indirectly for political purposes (e.g., use their phones for a phone bank)
- Ask a candidate for public office to sign a pledge or other promise to support a particular issue
- Distribute partisan campaign literature
- Display political campaign signs on church property
Under current law, churches, as well as other 501(c)(3) organizations, may engage in nonpartisan campaign activities, primarily consisting of voter education. Thus, they may organize and coordinate nonpartisan get-out-the-vote and voter registration drives; sponsor nonpartisan candidate debates or forums, so long as all legally qualified candidates are invited to appear and wide spectrum of issues are covered; educate all candidates on issues of public interest; and create legislative scorecards or voter guides. All of these permissible activities must be done on a nonpartisan basis.
In order to cross the line and unlawfully endorse a candidate, pastors don’t need to say any magic words like “Vote for Candidate A” or “Don’t cast your ballot for Candidate B.” They can even cross that line by expressing that sentiment without telling a parishioner directly. Churches should not even tacitly express favor or disfavor of a particular candidate. The regulations state: “Even if a statement does not expressly tell an audience to vote for or against a specific candidate, an organization delivering the statement is at risk of violating the political campaign intervention prohibition if there is any message favoring or opposing a candidate.” If a pastor is making it abundantly clear whom he or she favors or disfavors, even without using the magic “vote for/against” words, the law is violated.
Over the years, FFRF has reported hundreds of churches that have violated these prohibitions. Since 2006, FFRF has asked the IRS for investigations into over 70 situations in which we believe the tax code was violated. In 2012, FFRF even sued the IRS to compel it to enforce its own regulations barring churches as well as other (c)(3)s from engaging in partisan political activity. We’re proud our lawsuit nudged the IRS to agree to continue to investigate errant churches and ensure that the tax code is being enforced evenhandedly.
More complaints, and the most interesting, come during presidential election years. In 2008, Pastor John Stocker of Resurrection Fellowship Church in Loveland, Colo., repeatedly warned his congregants of the dangers of electing Barack Obama. He told them, “This man should not even be able to win an election for a city dog catcher’s position.”
In 2012, Pastor Greg Moss of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, delivered a sermon less than two weeks before the election while wearing a shirt that read “OMG Obama’s My Guy.” Another pastor delivered a sermon entitled “Prove All Things – Comparison of the Republican and Democrat Platforms,” during which it was made very clear that the Republican platform was the favored one. Pastor Nelson of St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Orange Park, Florida, told his parishioners that “You can vote for anybody, even a dog, but don’t vote for Obama.”
Just this year, two churches in Louisville, Ky., were reported by FFRF to the IRS for violating the code when they endorsed Hillary Clinton during worship services. Another church in Delaware was reported for endorsing Donald Trump.
Most recently, Pastor Donnie Romero of Stedfast Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, denounced both major candidates for president, effectively endorsing neither. “There is no biblical grounds that a Christian should ever for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton … Show me one reason why these people should be elected? They’re wicked, ungodly, and evil demonic people.”
Public endorsements or opposition aren’t just made during sermons, they’re also made in official church bulletins, or on church marquees. FFRF has received reports of churches handing out sample ballots with candidates marked. In 2012, we received a number of reports of marquees used for politicking. First Conservative Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, posted “Pray for our President to be replaced.” Church of the Valley in Leakey, Texas, put “Vote for the Mormon, not the Muslim” on its marquee and a church in Chico, California, referencing the “birther” movement, posted “Vote for the American.”
And since “all politics is local,” we have also received complaints and notified the IRS about churches endorsing state and local candidates as well.
As we move closer to the November election, keep an eye out for illegal campaign activity by churches and other religious organizations. FFRF has a detailed FAQ on churches and political activity, which provides information on reporting violations.
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